Smart devices make personal connections

Bea Muller, a resident of Steeplechase Gracious Retirement Living in Oxford, enjoys using her iPad to play word games with her friends and to communicate with her family members.

Ginger, the golden retriever puppy, barks and wags her tail. Her heart pounds when someone pets her. But Ginger doesn’t need to be fed or bathed. She never needs to go outside. Gini Cronauer likes that about the robotic dog. The animatronic pet responds like a “real puppy,” said Cronauer, of the Village of Duval. Cronauer is a volunteer for Day-Break Club of The Villages, a caregiver respite group, and is known to bring the ever-popular Ginger to gatherings. Technology like robotic pets and the use of various platforms and devices are keeping residents in assisted living facilities engaged and active. Through this technology, residents are staying connected with family members and each other, engaging in activities and finding companionship. Cronauer discovered the robotic pets after reading an article about two years ago and relishes the reaction from people when Ginger acts puppy-like.

“If you call her name, she’ll look at you,” Cronauer said. “You can feel her heartbeat and she wags her tail. She has several barks and her eyebrows go up and her mouth moves. She is so much fun.”

Several people she knows have now bought a robotic pet for their loved ones after seeing Ginger.

“She’s so cute,” Cronauer said. “(Ginger) brings smiles to their faces. When any one of us are happy, it’s beneficial to our health and you can get all that happiness and not have to take it for a walk.”

After recognizing the companionship benefits of robotic pets for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, the Florida Department of Elder Affairs announced the distribution of 375 therapeutic robotic pets to Floridians with Alzheimer’s and dementia last April, citing a desire to improve mood and quality of life and reduce caregiver stress.

“To date, we have delivered over 6.5 times that number with close to 2,450 animatronic pets delivered throughout Florida,” said Rebecca Roberts, director of communications at the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

Roberts claims many caregivers have written to the DOEA to say how much a robotic cat or dog has changed the outlook of their loved one and calls the feedback DOEA has gotten “inspirational.”

“The robotic pets are able to awaken many hidden emotions for the recipients such as comfort, joy, affection and empathy, among others,” she said.

Marion Ficarro was glad to bring her robotic dog Tipsy to her new home this past August.

Ficarro was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two and a half years ago and is cared for by her partner Rich Cornell. She moved to the assisted living facility Prestige Manor III in Belleview last month.

Tipsy, the perpetual puppy is a lifelike robotic pet that has offered comfort and joy to Ficarro since Cornell got him for her in May 2019.

When it came to the choice between a cat or a dog, Ficarro chose the dog. 

The two came up with the name Tipsy and paid $106 for it.

“She just took to it,” said Cornell, of the Village Alhambra. “She grabbed it and hugged it and loved it, and it turned right to her.”

Ficarro got used to bringing Tipsy along everywhere she went, to restaurants and to the store, and Tipsy remains her companion pet at her new home in Belleview.

“She just loves it,” Cornell said. “It does all kinds of things. Its head goes back and forth, its eyeballs go up and down, his tail wiggles.”

The intelligent and interactive robotic dog responds to Ficarro. When Ficarro stops petting him, Tipsy starts to whine.

“It does have a mute button and an off button,” Cornell said.

The use of technology in area assisted living facilities can be found in various platforms and formats, including community apps, iPads and iN2L.

Kathy Wiederhold, executive director at YourLife of Wildwood Memory Care has known about iN2L technology for years and immediately embraced the technology when the facility opened last spring. Since then, it is incorporated more each day into the programming, according to Wiederhold.

The paid-subscription service features touch-screen TVs, which provide a host of group and individual engagement activities, like games or shared videos of family vacations.

“Our families can gain access to the (iN2L) system to upload photos and videos from families around the world that our residents can then access,” she said.

iN2L is used mainly for resident engagement and family communications and enables safe group activities.

“These large-screen TVs have enabled us to social distance, yet engage a group of individuals in stimulating activities,” Wiederhold said.

iPads are the most ubiquitous form of technology at Freedom Pointe at The Villages, said Rachelle King, community life service manager, and staff members help residents set up their iPads and iPhones when they get them as gifts.

The facility offers iPad classes twice a week. While King mirrors her iPhone on the overhead screen for residents to get a good view, she addresses troubleshooting and answers questions.

Through its Touchtown app, Freedom Pointe residents can use their smart devices to stay tuned to daily activities, such as what’s on the menu, announcements and three daily meditations.

“It’s really been beneficial,” King said. “The Touchtown has been a great source of communication with the residents and keeping them grounded.”

While the smart devices offer myriad options, the most frequent activity at Freedom Pointe is FaceTiming with family members.

The ability to maintain social connections is what Beatrice Muller, 95, appreciates about her iPad.

The Steeplechase resident relies on staff to help her navigate the nuances of the new device she got for her birthday, and she relishes the ability to tap into the “outside world.”

Muller keeps in touch with other residents, family and friends through emails and chats and playing games.

“I get to talk to my relatives,” she said. “I have two grandsons in Illinois and we play Word Chums. At our leisure, we pick (the iPad) up and look and say ‘I guess it’s my turn.’”

Even though there’s a lot she is still learning about her new upgraded iPad, Muller admits that, like a teenager glued to her smartphone, she has grown quite attached to the device.

“I would be lost without it,” she said.


Staff writer Julie Butterfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5254, or